Tag Archives: Vogue

2012: The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

Fierceness is SO much more than posing as a circus freak for ANTM. Sorry, Tyra.

Fierceness is SO much more than posing as a circus freak for ANTM. Sorry, Tyra.

Happy New Year! So I have finally come out with the much-anticipated (at least by me) ‘Fiercest figures of 2012’ list. I know I’m a little late with this (I’m running on ‘new blogger’ time) but I’ve been busy making some changes to my blog (stay tuned for some new added features, like Pinterest!) and expanding my series on Ethical Fashion, which I will be returning to this week. While the assortment of people and movements I have highlighted on this list may seem kind of random, rest assured that there is a rhyme and reason to this madness. All of these figures are connected by a theme of fierceness, which goes so beyond being able to pose as an attractive circus freak a la America’s Next Top Model, regardless of what Tyra may think. Fierceness, for me, is encompassed by those who challenge the norm, go against the grain, and beat to their own drum. It’s standing up for what you believe in, thinking outside the box, and fighting for equality and social justice. And hey, if you can do all of those things while posing as an attractive circus freak, then props. to. you. I’m not hatin’ homies.

Fashion: In many respects, it was a depressing year for fashion. Three hundred people killed in a textile factory fire in Pakistan. Toxic chemicals found in the clothes of popular brands like Levi’s, Calvin Klein, and Victoria’s Secret. The fact that Wal-Mart refused to pay for Bangladesh factory safety improvements that could have prevented the deaths of 112 people. The report that revealed that ‘fast fashion’ brands like H&M and Forever 21 were exploiting their workers. Ugh. The list of sad, if not horrific stories never seemed to end, shattering the facade of glamor to which the industry so desperately clings. But these catastrophies did not go ignored. Protest movements from around the world rose up and united in their calls for a more equitable industry.  And at the same time, notable industry players were openly challenging the status quo of the industry, from normative beauty ideals to treating cultures like trends. Here are just a few of these people and movements that I thought were noteworthy to mention:

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Thousands take to the streets on the outskirts of Daka to protest working conditions in Bangladesh textile factories (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters).

Bangladesh protests: Thousands of people took to the streets to protest  the factory fire that was counted as one of Bangladesh’s worst industrial disasters. The story was covered internationally, with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity calling out “Western brands” for faulty monitoring practices.

Greenpeace: You want to know what fierce is? It’s releasing a report that reveals the toxic chemicals found in the clothes we wear, and then successfully sparking a world-wide protest movement that effectively led to twelve global fashion leaders like Nike, H&M and Zara to commit to the elimination of hazardous chemicals released into our clothes and water. Talk about getting it DONE. Awesome.

Fair Tuesday/Buy Nothing/Buy Local day: Following the consumer excess of Black Friday, these three movements emerged as a counterpoint. Fair Tuesday came out of the Fair Trade/Ethical Fashion movement, and Buy Nothing/Local out of Occupy, but taken together, the message was clear: Buy less, and if you do want to get someone a gift, make it an ethical one that uses fair labor and environmental practices.

Paul Frank Industries apologized for this offensive flyer and party, and then expressed interest in holding a panel on Native imagery at a future conference and working with a Native artist to make designs!

Paul Frank Industries didn’t just  apologize for this offensive flyer and party. They also invited Jessica and Adrienne to help host a panel on Native imagery at a future conference and expressed interest in working with a Native artist to make designs!

Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin: As I wrote in a previous post, the fashion industry is often guilty of treating different cultural groups like trends. And in the last few years, ‘Indian’ fashion has been all the rage, with outlets like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 describing their shirts as ‘Navajo’ and ‘tribal,’ and influential retailer Victoria’s Secret sending a headdressed bikini clad model down the runway. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations and Jessica Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin decided to use their online sites to demand that Native American people be represented respectfully and authentically, and in the past year, have raised awareness and sparked campaigns against Urban, Victoria’s Secret, and Paul Frank’s Fashion’s Night Out ‘Dream Catchin’ Pow wow’ party, to name just a few examples. Adrienne’s recent piece on the sexualization of Native women in pop culture, from Victoria’s Secret’s headdressed bikini clad model to Blair Waldorf of Gossip Girl dressing up as a ‘pocahottie’ on Halloween, that trivializes the high rates of sexual assualt that Native women face, was really powerful.  And I’m obsessed with Jessica Metcalfe’s boutique on her site, which features the amazing work of Native designers. Love. them.

Bruno Pieters: After taking a two year hiatus from the fashion industry, former art director for Hugo Boss Bruno Pieters decided to start Honest by, the first company in the world to share the full cost breakdown of its products. As Pieters noted in this interview, “We communicate everything about the materials, the manufacturing methods, and even the pricing strategies of the products stocked with honest by, to our client. Every part of the collaboration process is transparent including the store mark up calculations.” 100% full transparency? Can we talk girlfriends??  Pieters is a trailblazer for the industry and hopefully other designers will not just take note, but follow in his footsteps.

Diane Pernet & Bruno Pieters in the art film, To Be Honest:

Kahindo Mateene: Rising star couture designer Mateene sees fashion as a “creative expression of a woman’s independence and individuality.” Many designers view fashion as a valuable avenue for self-expression, Mateene takes it one step further when she states that “fashion is most stylish when it is produced with the highest ethical and socially conscious principles.” Her online site, which was launched in 2012, boldly states “Modern. African. Ethical.” Not only are her clothes made with fair trade principles, but the African textiles and prints inspired by her Congolese background are gorgeous!

Cameron Russell: Former supermodel Russell gave a fantastic TED talk, where she focused on the social construction of beauty, and the privileging of whiteness within the industry. Contrasting pictures of her before a shoot with her actual modeling photos was a startling reminder of the power of image. She is currently one of the directors of the consulting firm The Big Bad Lab, a media platform which she hopes will allow girls to explore fashion creatively without such restrictive social norms attached to what is “ideal.”

Casey Legler in her new ad campaign for AllSaints, where she models clothes for the men's and women's collections

Casey Legler in her new ad campaign for AllSaints, where she models clothes for the men’s and women’s collections

Casey Legler: A former Olympic swimmer, Legler is a woman posing as a male model, challenging heteronormative views of gender. She looks superb in both men’s and women’s clothing, and is infinitely charming. As she notes, “I find the gender fluidity of this work so excited. Seeing me on the men’s board speaks to this notion of freedom. There’s something really bold about that. It seems to be saying ‘Look, there is also this other way. And it’s pretty rad.'”  Amen.

Elizabeth Kline: Her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, has been described as the Fast Food Nation for the fashion industry. It’s a fantastic, accessible account of how cheap fashion has impacted people, the environment, and global economies.

Diana Wang: Seduced by the title of ‘head accessories intern’ at the magazine Harper’s Bazaar, Wang headed to New York City to start what she hoped would be a glamorous experience that would open other doors into the fashion industry. Four months later, she returned to her home to Columbus, Ohio, and filed a lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, for not paying for her work. Reading her story is something out of the Devil Wears Prada. It helped to open up a larger debate about the exploitative nature of intern work, as Wang claimed that there were little educational benefits to outweigh the unpaid nature of her internship.
Vivienne Westwood's Climate Revolution

Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution

Vivienne Westwood: I am often wary of famous designers who claim social responsibility, as it can be difficult to gauge whether it is being done to just attract a new consumer following. But Westwood, with her punk sensibilities, is committed. From her ethical fashion line made in Kenya to her many environmental and political campaigns which she details on her blog ‘Active Resistance,’ to her clothes that express support for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and call for climate change, Westwood is one of the few designers actively using fashion as a vehicle for environmental and political activism. Her message to ‘buy less, choose well, make it last,’ has become the ethical fashion community’s mantra. I loved it when she just told people to stop buying clothes for six months to keep landfills from filling up. I mean, when Dame Vivienne tells you to do something, you kind of have to do it, right?

Bandi Mbubi: Although not directly related to fashion, Congolese activist Mbubi’s Tedx talk on the importance of sustainability in technology was an important reminder of the tragic consequences of unconscious consumerism. He documented how the crisis in Eastern Congo is being fueled by the fight over mineral resources that are often found in the technology we use. Interestingly enough, he touted technology’s ability to ‘get the word out,’ but emphasized the need for more transparent supply chains. Truly inspiring.

Media + Politics: From the presidential election to school shootings, global protest movements, drone wars, and crazy weather, the media certainly had its share of provocative stories to cover. However, the mainstream media, as I documented in a previous post, often fails to report on the news in a complex manner. Fixated with increasing ratings to make money for their corporate owners, news outlets often cut expensive funding for international reporting, instead focusing on entertainment -related news, or ‘info-tainment.’ The end result is a media landscape that treats its viewers as consumers, instead of citizens. That is why we so desperately need independent media.

Me meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during their Election 2012 tour-def one of my top moments of the year!

Me meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during their Election 2012 tour-def one of my top moments of the year!

Amy Goodman: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is truly, one of my heroes. Her news station is independently funded, which has allowed her to open up the dialogue to include alternative voices. Her interviews are always multi-faceted, complex, and thought-provoking. Whether it is expanding the debate to third party candidates, addressing racism in the Trayvon Martin case, or hosting one of the most insightful, coherent debates on Israeli settlements, Democracy Now! is helping to give public discourse back into the hands of its citizens. Check out their 2012’s Year in Review, and Amy Goodman’s book The Silenced Majority, which recently made the New York Times best-seller list.

The 20 women senators elected this year, OBVI: Highest ever in the country’s history, and a remarkably diverse group. The House letting the Violence Against Women Act die was depressing, but the news of these women being elected brings me hope.

Anonymous protest

Hacktivist group Anonymous organized a protest in Steubenville that attracted over 2000 followers.

Anonymous: I didn’t use to be a fan of internet vigilante justice, but I’m starting to believe that in our ever increasing corporatized media and cultural landscape that it is needed. And as I followed Anonymous in their 2012 hacktavist struggles, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their anti-corporate protest that also seemed to have a strong social justice mission to protect the marginalized. But I straight-up developed a crush on the group when they released incriminating evidence against several young men charged in the Steubenville rape case. They, along with blogger Alexandria Goddard who covered the case from the beginning and fought for mainstream media attention, are truly the young girl’s knights-in-shining-armour.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner and now elected Parliament member of Burma, is one of the fiercest people of the century.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner and now elected Parliament member of Burma, is one of the fiercest people of the century.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma has had a long history of human rights abuses, leading thousands to flee as refugees (for more information on the Burmese refugee crisis, check out this wonderful video). Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned for her opposition against the government, was recently elected as a member of parliament in a resounding victory. Props also to Hillary Clinton (I mean, do you want to define fierce?), who has always admired Suu Kyi and has made Burma a focus during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Fierce women who challenged gender/sexuality ‘norms’:

Savannah Dietrich – Challenged Victim Silencing: The brave young woman who, after she was sexually assaulted at a party and her attackers were let off too easy, tweeted the names of her attackers as a response to the judge who ordered that “no one should speak about this case for any reason.” That a rape victim might have received a harsher sentence than those who assaulted her sparked national outrage, and her team was successfully able to request that the boys’ court records be unsealed. The end result? The boys weren’t invited back to Trinity High School that year, and they also got a stiffer sentence. “Everyone thought I was this little girl they could intimidate,” she recently stated in an interview. Man, were they wrong. A true role model for victims of sexual assault everywhere.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, doesn't care what people think of her as a working mom.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, doesn’t care what people think of her as a working mom.

Marissa Mayer – Challenged Normalized views of ‘Work-life balance’: Mayer was nominated by my cousin Whitney, a lawyer, new mom, and one of the fiercest woman I personally know. Mayer, who was hired from Google for a $100 million deal to be the CEO of Yahoo, received criticism from some women for only taking two weeks of maternity leave. But as Whitney put it, “I have no problem with it, and am enjoying watching her pull this company together. For all of our conversations about women’s ‘choices,’ we never seem to question this notion that women are the only ones who are capable of taking care of their children. And at the end of the day, is it really any of our business how she chooses to raise her child?” True DAT.

Blogger Libby Ann – Challenged Propaganda on Reproductive Rights: When I read this article by a former ‘pro-life’ blogger who had come to realize that she was ‘duped’ by the rhetoric of the movement, I passed it on to everyone I knew and posted it on my Facebook. Twice. It was the most articulate, coherent dialogue on abortion I had read. Ever. Why? Because quite simply, she exposed the ‘framing’ of the pro-life movement that emphasizes saving babies as a fraud, arguing that the movement does little to provide access to contraceptives, support poor women (finally-an economic element to the debate!) who could not afford to have children, or research why half of all zygotes that are so essential to the ‘personhood’ debate fail to implant. As she put it:

The reality is that so-called pro-life movement is not about saving babies. It’s about regulating sex. That’s why they oppose birth control. That’s why they want to ban abortion even though doing so will simply drive women to have dangerous back alley abortions. That’s why they want to penalize women who take public assistance and then dare to have sex, leaving an exemption for those who become pregnant from rape. It’s not about babies. If it were about babies, they would be making access to birth control widespread and free and creating a comprehensive social safety net so that no woman finds herself with a pregnancy she can’t afford. They would be raising money for research on why half of all zygotes fail to implant and working to prevent miscarriages. It’s not about babies. It’s about controlling women.

Talk about shutting. It. DOWN.

Mindy Kaling of the Mindy Project could care less about her weight - and red dress fierce much?

Mindy Kaling of the Mindy Project could care less about her weight – and red dress fierce much?

Mindy Kaling – Challenged Women’s Roles in Television: The Mindy Project is the first sitcom starring and created by an Indian-American, and one of the few starring a woman of color. It features Mindy as a successful doctor who calls the shots in a male-dominated workplace, but who’s girly and loves her girlfriends. She’s not super thin but has a positive body image. And in every single freaking episode, there is amazingly sharp and self-aware commentary on race, gender, sexuality, and pop culture. Why are people not freaking out more about this show? Oh, and just recently, Stephen Tobolowsky, the actor who played her boss, was let go because the writers wanted Mindy to be making “more decisions in the workplace on her own.” Are you freaking out now girlfriends? Mindy’s totally my crush (and I don’t need to say ‘girl crush’ because as Mindy put it in a previous episode, “are you that scared of people thinking you’re a lesbian?”). Watch this show!!

Saturday Night Live: Just got to give a quick shout-out to two brave sketches that nailed our current cultural moment. The first was ‘The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party,’ where rookie Cecily Strong aptly nailed the self-righteous hipster who is constantly taking Instagram pics, asking whether she can sing ‘Negro spirituals,’ and giving strong opinions on political issues about which she knows little. My favorite quote? “People are very happy right now, and that makes me very, very sad.” The second, on the iPhone 5, was one of the most brilliant sketches on SNL I have ever seen. Featuring Chinese laborers who confront the ‘Tech Experts’ complaining about the new phone’s features (‘it’s too light!), it was a truly scathing critique of ‘First World problems.’

Music: It was an amazing year for artists who used music to push boundaries and make cultural and political commentary, both blatant and subtle.  Very few of these musicians will be nominated for a Grammy this year, but the way they challenged the music industry can not be discounted.

Pussy Riot inspired protests all over the world in a way that resurrected punk music, and music in general, as a tool for protest.

Pussy Riot inspired protests all over the world in a way that resurrected punk music, and music in general, as a tool for protest.

The fiercest single of the year? Um yeah, that goes to Russian punk feminist band Pussy Riot, obvi. Their single, ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ criticized the Orthodox church’s traditional views on womencalled Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I a ‘suka’ (meaning bitch in the derogatory, not in that cool, ‘reclaiming patriarchy’ way), and called out Putin’s re-election as a fraud. Charged with hooliganism, they faced a prison sentence of up to seven years. Their arrests led to protests all over the world, with people donning masks similar to the ones that the band had worn.  Do I need to say anything more? If you haven’t checked out their brilliant performance, then you can watch it here. And stay tuned for an upcoming documentary on the band, which is heading for Sundance in 2013.

Punk rapper/Performance artist cites the Riot Grrls as an influence.

Punk rapper/Performance artist Mykki Blanco cites the Riot Grrls as an influence.

The Riot Grrl: Along those lines, this feminist punk underground movement that emerged in the early 90s seemed to re-emerge in public consciousness in a big way in 2012, because all of a sudden, everyone who was bad-ass was dropping them as an influence. Pussy Riot of course. But then there was Mykki Blanco, rapper/performance artist/drag queen who cited Riot Grrl icon Kathleen Hanna as an influence and described her style as “a mixture of riot grrrl and ghetto fabulousness.” Lena Dunham, creator of the show Girls, appeared on Grantland and mentioned how the provocative nature of her show was influenced by having ‘some Riot Grrl in me.’ And Tavi Gevinson, 16 year old fashion blogger and founder of the teen feminist site Rookie, also expressed her admiration of Hanna’s band Le Tigre and 90’s era teen ‘zines like Sassy that were part of the Riot Grrl movement. I am SO stoked for the upcoming release The Punk Singer, a documentary on Hanna!

Frank Ocean: For all the reasons I listed in this post.

Azealia Banks: If the Grammy’s allowed EPs to be nominated, my girl Azealia would have been tearing it up this year. Her first single ‘212’ was addictive, raunchy, and fun. Her song ‘Fierce‘ would make the list just by virtue of its name, but it really was the chillest blend of hip-hop, house music and 1980s ball culture (see the amazing film Paris is Burning for more on drag balls). But it was ‘Liquorice’ that really did it for me, with her sharp indictment of the fetishization of black women. Feisty and fiercely intelligent, the openly bisexual Banks has stated, “I’m not trying to be the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms.” And we’re done GFs, DONE.

Nelly Furtado: Her song ‘Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)’ wasn’t just fierce because she looked hot while walking down the street in stilts. It was fierce because it featured amazing Native American hoop dancers, including champion hoop dancer Tony Duncan, in a way that was respectful and truly representative of the culture. Gwen Stefani, take note.

Solange Knowles: 2012 was a great year for Solange to drop the wannabe-B act and carve out her own niche, as the indie, totally hipster sister with an awesome sense of style and distinct set of pipes. I have watched this video dozens of times, and it never gets old. Featuring a stunning South African setting, fashionable dandies right out of the Congolese Le Sape Society (or Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance), and even subtle commentary on the politics of hair and personal choice, the song is whimsical, sweet, and just right.

Marina Abramovic + Anthony and the Johnsons: Two brilliant performance artists collaborated for a patriarchy-smashing, provocative music video called ‘Cut the World’ that you may very well hate. I could only watch it once, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week (oh, and the documentary on Abramovic, The Artist is Present, was totes amazing).

Kitty Pryde: You know when something or someone is fierce, but you can’t really put a finger on it? (Ok, maybe this is a dilemma that only I really face). Well that’s exactly how I feel about Kitty Pryde, whose homemade mumbling rap song ‘Ok Cupid’ simultaneously seems to capture teenage angst while never taking it too seriously. The style is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’ve been playing it constantly since it came out. There is just something about this girl….

Le1f: Being an openly gay rapper in a homophobic industry is tough. 6’3 Wesleyan grad Le1f however, gets it done. Turning gay slurs into “expressions of braggadocio” and walking the fine line of making activist music that’s never preachy, he pretty much re-defines fierce. And his song ‘Wut,’ is seriously addictive. At the very least, you’ll be impressed by his dancing/voguing.

That’s all.

What did you think about my list? Anyone else you would have added? Let me know in the comments below!

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Ethical Fashion: How to Navigate the Industry

Zaroff In the final part of this series with Eco-fashion pioneer Marci Zaroff, I wanted to turn to the question of what it will take to really change the textile industry, what regulations need to be instituted, and in what ways we can empower ourselves to navigate through the many contradictions of what is indeed, a very complex industry.

Nadia: I would really love to hear what you think about the rise of Eco/sustainable fashion alongside the rise of ‘fast fashion,’ which encourages fast and disposable consumption of cheap clothing. How do we shift the cultural paradigm from this type of consumption to one that is slower and more responsible?

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Taking it to the streets. More than 300,000 people signed up to join the ‘Detox Zara’ campaign, which successfully resulted in Zara committing to go toxic-free by 2015.

Marci: The key is education, and that comes from driving awareness to consumers, retailers, media and buyers. And while deeper shifts are often more effective coming from top-down decision makers, passionate champions within a company and/or consumer demand (especially ignited by social & viral media) can affect positive change as well. Leveraging editors and celebrities, who are already conscious about their lifestyle choices can also be very powerful. I am partnered with the Environmental Media Association, which works successfully within the television & film entertainment industry to create messaging about environmental issues. And consumers can indeed make a difference! Just look at Greenpeace’s Toxic-Free Fashion Campaign that has galvanized the global fashion industry, propelling International brands as big as Levi’s and Zara to commit to a toxic-free future.

Nadia: Sustainable, Eco-fashion has definitely gained steam in the past two decades, but it doesn’t seem to have really permeated our consciousness like organic food has. What would you say are the three biggest stigmas of Eco-Fashion?

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Far from frumpy. Eco-fashion label Noir‘s sexy collection at 2009 London Fashion Week.

Marci: The first stigma would be that to adopt Eco-Fashion, one must give up style or quality. Similar to the early years of the organic food movement, when organic food was associated with granola, today, when people hear the term ‘organic or Eco fashion,’ they often still conjure an image of boxy, frumpy, boring, beige, rough-to-the-hand wares. But just as organic & natural food is now a far cry from just brown rice, as witnessed by walking into any Whole Foods Market, Eco-Fashion is no longer hippie, but instead, very hip! Yes, in the early years of Eco-Fashion, there were limitations to designs in terms of fabrics we could use. And of course, there wasn’t as high of a demand, so pricing was more challenging, and there were fewer factories willing to be innovative and work out-of-the-box. But the industry has come a very long way, and is still a work-in-progress.

In fact, the second stigma, that Eco-Fashion costs a lot more, is also no longer true. Efficiencies and economies of scale have been met and further, vertically integrated supply chains have been built from farm all the way to finished product. That is how Under the Canopy has been so successful bringing affordable accessible product collections to market. We have cut out a lot of the excess markups and middlemen, so that the consumer gets a product that is priced competitively and has the added value of being sustainable and ethically made.

That leads me to the third biggest stigma: how can one truly believe that their product is authentic? This is where certification, as well as brand integrity and commitment are paramount.  Understanding how to navigate a supply chain, while crossing T-s and dotting I’s via traceability and transparency, is an absolute key to success.

Nadia: Well, and one of the arguments for sustainable clothing is that unlike fast fashion, where the clothes tend to be cheap and we have little to no connections with the people who made it, we’re less likely to buy sustainably made clothes in excess and toss it out when we’re sick of it, right? I mean, that’s kind of the realization I came to this past summer when I was cleaning out my apartment.

Project Runway's season five winner, Leanne Marshall, used sustainable materials for her final dress, helping to create awareness for eco-fashion.

Project Runway’s season five winner, Leanne Marshall, used sustainable materials for her final runway collection, helping to create mainstream awareness for Eco-fashion.

Marci: Because of the past roadblocks in accessibility, affordability and authenticity, Eco-Fashion was much more limited. But with a growing market for Eco-Fashion driven by consumer demand and industry-wide collaborations, more retailers and manufactures can have access to eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes, and they will be more likely to support this shift in paradigm.

Because Ethical fashion is becoming more “fashionable”, and companies know that it’s no longer about staying ahead, but instead, it’s about not being left behind, there is a concern from many consumers that some companies are ‘going green’ to make their products more marketable. That is why consumers must be discerning as to what products, brands and companies they buy and support.

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Real charity or just clever marketing? Gap was accused of using marketing campaigns such as this one to detract from its many sweatshop abuses.

Nadia: That’s a concern I have had in the past and still have. And it’s not just with ‘going green,’ it’s with other aspects of social responsibility, that I feel companies sometimes will adopt marketing strategies to make their companies look better, when really they’re not being completely transparent. For example, I remember the controversy when Gap came out with their Red line, which donated a small portion of their proceeds from that line to Aids in Africa. There were anti-sweatshop activists who were upset that a company known for its abuse of workers would use a cause such as Aids to appear socially responsible. How can consumers navigate through these contradictions?

Marci: I think that this lack of transparency can really discourage people from being conscious consumers, because they don’t know what to believe. And in the Eco-fashion world, we’ve seen a lot of greenwashing, a practice by which a corporation will display insincere concern for the environment in an attempt to further their own agenda and reputation. Historically, it’s been a challenge to differentiate between which certifications are actually being monitored and accredited by third party certifiers, and there is still a huge disconnect in the consumers’ mind about which certifications matter. There’s a great website called the Seven Sins of Greenwashing that reveals the falsity of a lot of these labeling claims, including ‘all-natural’ (which means nothing – unlike organic, which is a legal word with very specific meaning) or calling something ‘green’ just because it contains one environmental attribute.

The importance of full transparency.

The importance of full transparency.

Nadia: Could you give us some examples of greenwashing in the textile industry?

Marci: Sure, I’ll give two. Bamboo is a perfect example, because it was marketed as the poster child of Eco-Fashion, but really, it is absolutely NOT sustainable as a material. Bamboo, when grown, is a renewable plant and actually very sustainable when used for flooring and furniture. But when you break it down into a textile, you must use enormous amounts of chemicals, which, in the end, leave only traces of bamboo. This process emits a magnitude and multitude of toxic chemicals into the air and water, and in doing so, destroys the sustainable aspects of the bamboo.  It is essentially no different from Rayon, which is a synthetic. Once the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) received complaints along these lines, they did some research and slapped lawsuits on many of the companies that were marketing bamboo textiles, making them change their labels and packaging to say ‘Rayon made from bamboo.’

Another example of greenwashing is when companies sell their products as ‘organic’ when their fabrics only contain a small percentage of organic cotton. Banana Republic, as an example, got caught marketing clothes as organic cotton when really they only contained about 5% organic cotton! “Organic” is NOT a marketing proposition; it is a methodology in agriculture and a federally-regulated term.

Nadia: Doesn’t Nike make those claims as well?

Marci: Nike is different because they are fully transparent. Unless a product isn’t 100% organic cotton, they won’t label it as organic. Believe it or not, Nike has been a true leader and pioneer in the organic cotton industry, and they have consistently been one of the largest buyers of organic cotton for over a decade. They were a founding member (along with Under the Canopy) of the Textile Exchange (formerly the Organic Exchange) and their efforts to shift the textile industry have been invaluable. Check out their recently released YouTube video:

Nadia: I know that you have launched organic/sustainable fiber initiatives in top retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Macy’s, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond. How committed are you to this idea of accessibility, in the sense that these companies may also be selling products that conflict with sustainability?

Marci: I am extremely committed to accessibility. I believe in the saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  Therefore, every positive effort to offer consumers authentic sustainable choices is a step in the right direction. At the same time, this is where compliance and labeling are critical. As with the Banana Republic and Nike examples, the issue isn’t about companies only taking baby steps, it’s about full transparency. For example, Patagonia is a company with one of the most inspirational and well-respected environmental commitments that exists in the textile industry, but they are honest that they still have some things they need to work on. If you check out their amazing ‘Footprint Chronicles‘ online, you will be able to follow their supply chain and their efforts to make their company as transparent as possible.

Nadia: Designer Bruno Pieters just recently started the online retail site Honest By, which is the first 100% transparent company that gives customers a full cost breakdown of its products, so as to shed light on where the clothing is made and by whom. He recently noted in an interview that transparency is sorely lacking in the industry, and that no one really knows where their items are sourced, which is why he introduced ‘Honest By.’ Why are so few companies struggling to adopt this fully transparent model?

Marci: One of the biggest challenges I’ve come across with the large retailers I have worked with is how disconnected their different departments are. The marketing team isn’t speaking with the product development or sourcing teams, who aren’t connected with the Sustainability Directors or the buyers. These compartmentalized disconnects result in a lack of transparency, opportunity or effective communication strategies, and sometimes even result in tragedy, like at the recent factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh. For efforts to be truly sustainable for people, planet, profit, passion and purpose (“The five P’s”), companies must figure out how to plan, design, develop, source, manufacture and market with sustainable strategy and design models. The whole supply chain, from the farm and factory to the PR, has to be connected.

Nadia: Is this why it is so difficult to enforce multinational regulations?

Marci: There are inherent complexities with regulation. The challenge with the textile industry is that it is a global industry, and historically, certifications have sometimes differed between countries. As an example, I was on the team of people who wrote the first USA Certification of Organic Fiber Textiles, and in our trying to implement them across borders, there were huge inconsistencies with other countries’ standards. So how do you reconcile that? You need collaboration, and that’s what four different countries  –USA, Germany, the UK, and Japan- did when we created the Platinum standard for organic fiber textiles, known as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). This standard takes every part of a finished textile into consideration, from the farm (must be Certified Organic fiber) to the dyes, finishes, transport, packaging, labor, etc. It is a comprehensive authentic 3rd party accredited certification, which speaks to the very highest standards of excellence as a truly organic/sustainable textile product – for both apparel and home fashions. A recent breakthrough includes the USDA’s recognition of this standard as the textile counterpart to their USDA NOP seal that most people recognize on organic food products.

Nadia: Are there any companies that you think are taking the right steps towards sustainability?

Absolutely. For the mass-market, H&M has launched their “Conscious Collection.” Nike, Puma, and Adidas use sustainable fibers in their products. In high fashion design: Stella McCartney, Donna Karan, Ilaria Venturini, Fendi, and Vivienne Westwood have all introduced Eco-Fashion. Eileen Fisher also has begun integrating organic and sustainable fibers into her collections.

Vivienne Westwood is using her Red Label to create awareness about climate change.

Vivienne Westwood is using her Red Label to create awareness about climate change.

In addition to Under the Canopy and Portico, there are several other pioneering fashion brands making sustainable fibers and transparent ethical sourcing practices their focus: Lara Miller, Linda Loudermilk, Edun, People Tree, Kuyichi, Madera, Stewart & Brown, LoomState, and soon to be launched – FASE (Fashion-Art-Soul-Earth)!

Eco-fashion designers at NY Fashion Week share their mission to fuse style with sustainability, and counter ‘fast fashion’:

Nadia: I of course would love to hear about your label FASE, why you launched it, and how you hope it will change the perception of Eco-fashion and the face of fashion in general?

Marci: I wanted to address this new FASE-to-face movement, and the idea that we are all connected, from the people making the products to the ones who are buying them. In Spanish the word means ‘phase,’ so it also has a double meaning of entering into a new phase of humanity and social justice, of shifting the old broken paradigms. It’s time we do an about FASE and FASE forward, to FASE the facts, to FASE the future. FASE offers a new engaging and experiential platform to make people think, and connect. With its cache, creativity, accessibility and influence, I believe that fashion is the most powerful vehicle for change in consumer products.

Fashion is a form of expression and a way for people to make a statement. I don’t think the answer to consumerism is so black or white that we should tell people, ‘stop shopping.’ It’s really about shifting the paradigm of the fashion industry to a slower, more conscious, more sustainable way of engaging with the textiles we wear and use and the people who make them.

Nadia: And can you tell us more about your upcoming documentary Thread (trailer below)?

Marci: We hope that Thread can do for fashion what Al Gore did for climate change, which is to educate consumers about what is going on behind the scenes, to unveil the harmful human and environmental impacts behind the fashion industry that hides under the guise of glamour.

Beauty has always been inspired by nature, but because of modern-day society and commercial pressure for “more, faster, cheaper fashion”, and the industrial movement which has depleted and destroyed our Earth’s natural resources, we’ve destroyed the essence of true beauty.  Fast fashion is destroying our environment, the ecosystem that is a part of every one of us, disconnecting us from each other and from the roots of real beauty. Sabotaging our planet is compromising humanity’s ability to radiate from within, to be alive, thriving and confident, revealing the ultimate source of beauty. Universal consciousness is the soul of authentic beauty, with the notion that we are all interconnected on a very deep, energetic level.

I believe that in 2012, we have entered a new era of consciousness, one which will awaken us to come full circle back to our roots in nature. The Internet, social media, documentaries and YouTube are allowing us to pull the curtain back on what we’ve been taught and brain fed by mainstream media. We are finally able to counter advertising that feeds us false messaging, or denounce companies that employ non-sustainable practices that hurt the environment and people.

Nadia: As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “By the time you have finished your breakfast, you will have relied on half the world.”

Marci: And we should start every day with a sense of gratitude and abundance.

Nadia: Any last thoughts before we wrap up this series?

Marci: Yes, I just want to make it clear that this movement is about best efforts and better choices, not about perfection. With a commitment to consciousness, responsibility, authenticity and transparency, together, we can make a real difference, where the “alternative” can become the new “norm.”

For updates on Marci Zaroff’s other Eco Fashion ventures, check out her website at marcizaroff.com.

Thread Documentary Trailer:

Further Reading:

My Related Posts:

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ABAN: Empowering Girls in Ghana, One Fabric at a Time

ABAN co-founder Callie Brauel, bottom right, gathers with a group of young Ghanaians benefiting from their own work throug ABAN. At top left is Emmanuel Quarmyne, ABAN's Ghana Programs Director, beside UNC graduate Carly Brantmeyer.

ABAN co-founder Callie Brauel, bottom right, gathers with a group of young Ghanaians benefiting from their own work through ABAN. At top left is Emmanuel Quarmyne, ABAN’s Ghana Programs Director, beside UNC graduate Carly Brantmeyer.

So, I thought I would start this week off on a bit of a lighter note than the one I left you with on Friday (sorry girlfriends, but I have to keep it real, you know?). Before turning to the final installment of my interview with Eco Fashion pioneer Marci Zaroff, I wanted to highlight a truly inspiring non-profit called ABAN (A Ban Against Neglect), co-founded by Callie Brauel and Rebecca Brandt while studying at the University of Ghana in the capital city of Accra in 2008.  Upon arriving for their semester abroad, the two students were confronted by the huge problem of environmental waste left behind by the plastic bags of pure water sold to Ghanians, in the amount of forty tons a day. As their semester progressed, they eventually discovered another haunting problem: the 30,000 street girls from rural areas of the country who had left their families in the hope of finding work in the capital, only to be left homeless in the streets. Although they volunteered at a local agency that helped some of these girls, it was only when they developed a mock nonprofit company for recycled products for a class, that the idea for ABAN began to form. Why not give these girls much needed job skills and economic independence by having them take the plastic waste from the water bags and ‘upcycle’ them into cute bags and purses? Teaming up with Ghanian University student Emmanuel Quarmyne, who is currently ABAN’s Ghana Director, the three students were able to get a few sewing machines donated by non-profits, and partnered with Street Girls Aid, a Ghanian NGO that aids a small group of mothers and girls that are living off of the street. In 2010, after winning the Carolina Challenge, the team launched their own job skills and vocational training non-profit with ten young mothers aged 15-20 coming off the streets of Accra. Now, two years later, ABAN has not only graduated their first class of girls, but recycles over ten thousand plastic bags a month!

OK, stop. Building cross-cultural coalitions to empower young girls? Through the craft of sewing? And upcycling waste while doing it? ‘Listen Girlfriends’ DIES.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Callie Brauel, who currently resides in Chapel Hill, the other day over coffee, and she shared with me some of the challenges ABAN initially faced, how the organization works, and how they plan to move forward.

Nadia: So ABAN’s mission seems to be really holistic. In addition to the health care, living wages, daycare, and job employment the girls receive, there is also a staff of ten people, including a  house mother and psychologist on board. Was it always this way?

Callie: No, it wasn’t. When ABAN first started, we hired a seamstress and we thought it was enough to provide our class of ten girls with a job from nine to five every day. It became very clear however, that these girls had gone through so much trauma, and that unlike many Ghanians, who have a strong social and familial network, they really lacked that support.  They had, in some way or another, been neglected. And that obviously leaves scars, and it was clear that they needed emotional support as well, especially since most of them, even though they were all under the age of 20, had children. Once we realized this, we knew that we had to expand our organization’s mission and team.

So in May of 2011, Rebecca and I came back to the United States, and we went on a house tour through different parts of the U.S., and we raised $30,000 in two weeks. And with that money, we decided to get the girls out of Accra, and rent our own facility in Aburi, which is just east of the capital.

Nadia: So how does the program work now? What is a day like at ABAN?

Fun while sewing.

Fun while sewing.

Callie: Well, in the morning the girls work on their products, and in the afternoon, they take Math, English, Business Education, Leadership and Empowerment courses. We really try to empower the girls as much as possible, so they take turns cooking as well. Keep in mind that most of the girls come into our program without having had much or any formal education, so vocational training is key to their success. Often the skills they learn at ABAN will prove useful in future careers or side businesses. Since the girls are paid for their work they also get the added benefits of learning to hold a job and budget their money before they graduate from ABAN, all of which are necessary skills to provide for themselves and their children.

Nadia: You describe ABAN as a ‘fabric of change.’ So how do the girls make their products?

batik dying

Two students practice the art of batik dying.

Callie: What is awesome about the ABAN products is that each one is a piece of art. There is so much involvement in every step of the process, making each handmade product unique to the girl who made it. The first step involves the collection of bags. We network with local schools in the area to collect bags and promote environmental education in doing so. After collection, the bags are hand washed, sanitized and laid in the sun to dry.

We’re also working on producing a batik fabric, which is a multi-toned fabric. To make this, the girls take a piece of white fabric, and then use a wooden stamp to dip it into wax. You dye it in the first color, which is a lighter color, and then repeat the process with a darker color. That gives you the three-toned look of the fabric. And then water is used to remove the wax. And the dye we receive differs so much in color, because it is dependent on the weather and climate. So a red we get one day might be completely different from the red we receive the next. Which makes the process all the more exciting and a true learning process! Currently, the girls are learning how to make the batik fabrics,  and we’re also supporting local artisans to meet our demand. The products are finished with a final detail- a key chain made from recycled glass! We had college students come over this summer and work with a local artisan to make us a bead center on site.

Nadia: So where do you sell your products?

Desmund, Denicia’s son, sits with an ABAN travel case. One case recycles 24 plastic sachets, and provides life and job-skills training for a month for an ABAN girl.

Callie: We have an online store, and the list of retailers who sell our products are listed on there as well. Currently, 40% of our revenues come from sales, and 60% from grants and donations. We really like the idea of becoming self-sufficient through sales and having 80-90% of our revenue coming from sales, eventually.

Nadia: Are you looking to expand in the future?

Callie: Yes! We recently bought six acres of land, and in the next one to two years we will expand our program to thirty girls. Our hope is that within the next five years, we can start an actual ABAN campus for seventy to eighty girls! We are also have a sister organization called ACE (ABAN Community Employment) with ten seamstresses employed at fair wages and with key benefits who further support our organization as demand grows it the US. This extra revenue will help us expand our mission on the ground to support more girls in the ABAN school.

Nadia: So I have to ask, why is ABAN so invested in girls?

Callie: Well, for two reasons. Living in Accra, you see how vulnerable the girls are, because they are the ones who are forced to migrate to the capital to find work for their families. Secondly, there is a mounting amount of research supporting what is being labeled as The Girl Effect, that investing in a girl’s education doesn’t just change that girl’s life, it changes her family’s life as well, and betters the community. And we are definitely seeing that with the young women who have children. When their lives are improved, economically and emotionally, they can provide a better life for their children.

first graduation

First graduation!

Nadia: Do you have any success stories you would like to share?

Callie: Well, there is Asimaw, who loves to sew and is currently working as an apprentice. She is dreaming of starting her own business and employing and educating many other women like herself. Oh and I have to tell you about Denicia! She’s another girl who graduated from her program and received a scholarship at a private boarding school just outside the capital in Ghana. We have recycling initiatives with several schools that send us their plastic waste, and for several months we tried to get a recycling initiative started at her school, but it never transpired. Well one day, she saw all of these bags and bags of plastic piled outside of the school that were going to be dumped in a landfill. When they started to burn all of these bags, releasing all of these chemicals into the air, Denicia sprinted across the field and put a stop to it. And now the whole school has a recycling initiative, and they send all of their plastic bags to us. She is determined to be a top military officer in Ghana and with her determination, I know she is bound to get there.

Nadia: So how can people get involved and help?

Callie: There are so many ways! We have some great educational resources for teachers who want to introduce the culture of Ghana to their students, such as the craft of bead making, music, and dance. We also have a ‘Life Change’ kit where we send students a recycled water sachet, a piece of hemp, and beads to decorate with. It is a wonderful way to empower students with the idea that they indeed, can make a change.

You can also check out our website and donate online. We have a detailed explanation of where the money goes and how it changes a girl’s life. Or you can throw an ABAN party to raise awareness with your peers. We have all of the resources online to make it really easy!

Looking for other ways to connect with ABAN? Check them out on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Want to share a short video on what ABAN is all about? Click here.

Interested in selling ABAN products at a retail location? Click here for a promotional video of all of their products!

Here’s a ten-minute documentary on the girls of ABAN:

My Related Posts:

Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

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The Human Impact of the Textile Industry: Pesticide Poisoning, Farmer Suicides, and how Organic and Fair Trade Can Help

In my last post, Marci Zaroff shared with us her knowledge about the toxic environmental impact of the textile industry, and today, we turn to the devastating human impact. Up to 77 million cotton workers suffer poisoning from pesticides each year, and in India, 300,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide—almost 26 a day—to escape debt.

Nadia: So, could you expand a bit more on what is being referred to as a ‘pesticide treadmill?’

Marci: So here are the hard facts. Just as germs infest on people who are weaker, when plants are sprayed with chemicals, they also get weaker. And then the soil weakens, and the eco-system isn’t building a healthy plant. So this ultimately results in less yield for the farmer.

And then, these bugs build resistance to these pesticides, and the farmers have to buy stronger and more expensive pesticides, which they can’t afford, so they have to leverage their farms to the banks. Then, as the cycle perpetuates and continues, the soil gets depleted & destroyed, the bugs get out of control, and the farmers can no longer sustain their livelihoods. Stuck in tremendous debt, many farmers are committing suicide with the very pesticides that they used on their plants. Every half an hour in India, a farmer is committing suicide. There’s an upcoming documentary called Dirty White Gold that will reveal what is now being referred to as this ‘pesticide treadmill.’

Nadia: I just read that genetically modified crops are decreasing pesticide use for farmers, is this true?

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Marci: While there may be artificial decrease in the pesticides use in the short-term, in the long term we’re already seeing an increase in pesticide use again, because of genetic resistance and falling crop yields. Over 90% of the world’s cotton is now genetically modified (GMO), which has resulted in a monopoly for Monsanto, giving them the power to dramatically raise the prices on GMO cotton seed and the additional inputs and pesticides, which they also provide. At the mercy of these altered and chemical inputs, the GMO paradigm is not sustainable financially for farmers, and further, we are just beginning to learn of the harmful ramifications of GMO seeds in relation to human health. In addition, monocropping with GMO seeds is not only depleting the soil and its ecosystems, but risking the very survival of thousands of natural cotton varieties as well.

Nadia: And I just read that in the last year, the costs of cotton cultivation has jumped due to the rising costs of these pesticides, so it’s not as profitable as it used to be? And supposedly there have been more suicides among the farmers that have used these GM crops …

Marci: YES, these are sad facts, as stated prior.

Nadia: So you told us yesterday how organic cotton helps the earth, how does it help farmers?

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Marci: Well first of all, there’s a risk with using GMO seeds. We are continuing to learn of the consequences of GMO, across many agricultural crops (food & fiber), which is why there is a huge movement towards GMO labeling in the USA. We are one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t require GMO labeling! On the contrary, since organic farming prohibits the use of any GMO seeds, organic farmers are allowed to work with their environment and economic situation in a sustainable way, while building and protecting their soil and farms. They also can diversify their crops, which allows them to diversify their income. If they have more than one crop to rely on, then it helps protect them in case there is a crop failure, market demand, etc. And of course, they don’t have to breathe in toxic pesticides that harm more than 77 million cotton farmers a year. It is devastating to see conventional cotton farmers walking thru their fields with pesticide tanks on their backs, not realizing that they are spraying poisons in their own faces. And even worse, often in the faces of their babies, who they are carrying in slings while walking their farms. They are often lured in by the seed and chemical companies. It is a tragic human situation that we can help to change by supporting the growth and market for organic cotton.

Nadia: I know you were instrumental in helping Fair Trade USA develop the first USA Fair Trade certification of textiles and will be spearheading their national launch in 2013. (Fair Trade farmers receive a minimum price for their product, covering the cost of production, with a Fair Trade premium paid in addition for investments in social, environmental or economic development projects). Could you explain a) what drives your passion for Fair Trade, and b) How it connects with your environmental/organic concerns and advocacy?

Marci: I am passionate about building community and connecting humanity.  I believe it is extremely important to be in touch with the people who grow, sew and receive our products.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Nibhghana village in Garautha tehsil of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide by hanging himself with a ‘Babool’ tree on the night of 18th June. He was under pressure to pay back the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide when he couldn’t pay the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people (Full article here).

When you look at the triple bottom business model, which is ‘people, planet, profit,’ in textiles, much of the attention has been put on planet. But, as the example of the Indian farmers demonstrates, it’s also about people. When you start to work with people, the environmental ramifications are serious because they are being exposed to the toxins, and they can’t sustain their livelihoods. They can’t afford to feed their families. The cycle of fast fashion has driven costs down so low, that consumers only want extremely cheap clothing. So the question is, how do we create a more efficient supply chain where farmers can share grievances and are paid fairly? Where American consumers can understand that their clothing isn’t growing & made in their department store, but instead that people’s lives are being affected by the products and brands they are buying and supporting?

What Fair Trade does is to create an account for these farmers and/or factory workers so that they have a forum to voice their concerns. Marry that with the orders that the USA companies are placing. When you add the Fair Trade premium to the account, the farmers and/or workers can be paid “bonuses” that equate to a living wage, while also using their funds to invest into important and much needed community development initiatives such as education and health care.

And Fair Trade and Organic definitely compliment each other because not only are farmers getting paid more, their health is also being protected from the adverse effects of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and they don’t have to pay the extra money on these pesticides. Nearly half of Fair Trade Certified products that were imported into the USA in the last few years were certified organic.

Organic cotton farmers in India don't have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Organic cotton farmers in India don’t have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Nadia: What does the Fair Trade USA Garment and Textile certification ensure?

Marci: It protects both cotton farmers and/or factories from wage exploitation and terrible working conditions. A new model for living wages has been built in on top of the basic social standards (no child labor, fair working conditions, etc.) that have already been implemented by many USA companies. Farms and factories are checked periodically. It gives them premiums (funds) that are for community and social investment. So let’s say a company in the USA, like Under the Canopy, for example, bought Fair Trade Certified items from an Indian factory for $100. We would pay a percentagesomewhere between 5-10%- into a fund that the workers would control. Then, as a collective, the workers would decide where to invest their moneyin health care, the building of a school, child care, etc. We would then, in turn, be able to monitor and measure these specific impacts, to communicate back to our customers and loyal consumers. It is our job to offset some of those premiums in other creative ways, such as enhanced design, product innovation, and by creating efficiencies in our supply chain.

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

Nadia: I recently read that Fair Trade cotton is grown by 37 certified cotton farmer groups in 10 countries, and that in Mali, 95 percent of children of Fair Trade farmers go to school, which is more than double the national average for school attendance in a very poor country.

Marci: Yes, buying and supporting Fair Trade Certified products is truly affecting positive change in the lives of others in our global community. When I am in these projects, with the farmers and workers making our products, I am fueled by these efforts towards social justice, knowing that “like water for chocolate”, the happy energy of our growers and/or makers is in the soul, or DNA, of my brands.

 Nadia: One of the really cool things about companies that work with fair trade artisans is that they absorb the costs of any discounts they may be having. Like, I can get a ring 25% off, and the artisan is still paid in full.

Marci:

Farmers and factory workers shouldn’t have to suffer when other people win.

But that’s how the current system works. We have to look at every way we can support farmers and factory workers. The minimum wage isn’t enough to sustain a family of four in most countries, so these efforts will support our partners’ basic needs (which is different for each country.) With the recent fire in the Bangladesh apparel factory where over 112 workers died due to poor working conditions, it is clearly imperative that we protect our fellow humanity.

Also, while I think Fair Trade is essential, if our cultural tendency is for faster, cheaper, “more” consumption, it will remain a challenge to balance market demand with a more sustainable model. Education & awareness are paramount and the time is NOW.

The impact of organic cotton farming and Fair Trade on people’s lives:

Additional Resources:

  • Want to learn more about Fair Trade? Here’s a primer.
  • Want to see how Indian farmers are growing organic cotton on their farms? Click here.
  • Need help finding brands that use organic cotton? Check out this link.
  • Organic cotton grown in the United States? Watch here.

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Are Our Clothes Toxic? Marci Zaroff, Eco Fashion Trailblazer, Weighs In

Did you know that:

  • A recent study of 20 name brands revealed that clothing companies like Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Zara, contain traces of hazardous, potentially cancer-causing chemicals?
  • More than 8,000 toxic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which are carcinogenic, corrosive or include biologically-modifying reagents?
  • Producing one pair of jeans requires more than 1,800 gallons of water?
  • Bamboo is actually a synthetic fiber that some companies market to appear more environmentally friendly?
  • The average U.S. citizen throws away 68 pounds of clothing per year, with 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste ending up in our landfills annually?
  • 20 percent of the world’s industrial fresh water pollution comes from textile treatment & dyeing?
  • More than one trillion kilowatt hours are used annually in the global textile industry, representing more than 10% of the world’s carbon footprint?
  • Every half hour, a cotton farmer in India is committing suicide by drinking the very pesticides that he uses on his crops?

ZaroffI certainly didn’t until recently, and as I leaned more, I started to feel disillusioned with an industry that I began to realize was not just exploitative in its labor practices, but environmentally toxic. To help me navigate through the overwhelming amount of information out there on the topic, I talked with Marci Zaroff, a true trailblazer in the sustainable fiber and fashion industry. In 1995, Zaroff coined the term ‘Eco Fashion,’ as a way to fuse the glamorous world of fashion with environmental and social responsibility, and that phrase has now turned into a six billion dollar industry. Zaroff has also helped to define and draft the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the first USA Fair Trade certification for textiles with Fair Trade USA. Currently expanding her pioneering Eco Fashion lifestyle brand “Under the Canopy,” while working on her upcoming sustainable fashion brand FASE, as well as the documentary Thread, which she hopes will educate citizens on the environmental and human impacts of fashion & textile production, she is a true wealth of knowledge on the subject. For this first part of a three-part series, I wanted to focus more on the toxic environmental impact that the textile industry has on the environment and on ourselves before turning to the human costs on Friday. Then we will discuss how to gauge which companies are truly transparent in their sustainable practices and which ones are just greenwashing, and how to best move forward with the movement.

Nadia: So could you tell us a bit more about what motivated your passion to educate others about environmental issues and “Eco-Fashion?”

Marci: I am passionate about education, innovation, building community and connecting humanity. I have always felt a deep sense of global responsibility, and the foundation of many of my efforts over the last two decades is built under the notion that we are all interconnected, that we are all part of the same eco-system. The first eco-fashion brand that I started in 1996 is called “Under the Canopy,” and the premise is that we all live under the canopy of the planet’s eco-system together. The Native American philosophy is to protect our canopy, to protect life, for generations, which can best be expressed through the saying, “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” If you’ve ever been to any of the rainforests in the world, you’d know that the canopy is the top layer of the rainforest. So there is more life under the canopy of the earth’s rainforests than anywhere in the world, and it is that very life, and those eco-systems, that provide the oxygen that we all depend on to exist.

Who knew that something so cute could be so toxic?

Who knew that something so cute could be so toxic?

So going back over the past 20 years, as I worked with the natural food and beauty industries, I gained a deeper understanding of the relationship within agriculture, and that you can’t support one part of the equation without the other. In agriculture, all of the crops that grow, especially if you are growing organically, they’re very much interconnected. One of the main foundations of organic agriculture is crop rotation, and one of the main crops that are rotated is cotton. 60 percent of a cotton plant ends up going into the food chain—for oils, for bread products. If you read the back of many packaged products on the market today, they will have cottonseed oil as an ingredient. As I started to learn about the connection between food and fiber and the harmful chemicals used at all stages of the textile industry, I wanted to pull the curtain back, shift the paradigm, and offer consumers more sustainable choices. I was disillusioned when I discovered that the manufacturing processes of conventional textiles are extraordinarily toxic. When I started to learn the impact that conventional textiles were having, both from the fiber standpoint and the manufacturing standpoint, I coined the term ‘Eco-Fashion’ because I wanted to fuse those two very dichotomous worlds together— one being ecology, eco-systems, and our connection with the environment, the other being fashion. My mission was to revolutionize the fashion industry and demonstrate that those two worlds were not mutually exclusive.

Nadia: It was so surprising to learn how toxic cotton was. I mean, I had always thought of cotton as a ‘natural’ fiber!

A model wearing an oxygen mask, walks along a make-shift catwalk during a fashion show organized by environmental group Greenpeace titled 'Toxic Threads - The Big Fashion Stitch-Up', in Beijing November 20, 2012. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray)

A model wearing an oxygen mask, walks along a make-shift catwalk during a fashion show organized by environmental group Greenpeace titled ‘Toxic Threads – The Big Fashion Stitch-Up’, in Beijing November 20, 2012. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray)

Marci: It’s not. In fact, conventional cotton is one of the world’s leading sources of air and water pollution! Even though conventional cotton represents less that 3% of the world’s agriculture, it uses as much as 25% of the most harmful insecticides, and up to 10% of the most toxic pesticides to grow it! It is also incredibly wasteful in the amount of water that it uses—100 gallons to make one pound, and almost 3% of the world’s yearly water usage. In fact, not only does it take 700 gallons of fresh water to make just one cotton T-short, but in 2009, the world used three trillion gallons of fresh water to produce 60 billion kilograms of cotton fabric. Furthermore, other harsh chemicals, such as chlorine bleaches and formaldehyde, are used in conventional cotton production processes.

Victoria's Secret, named in Greenpeace's Study for containing chemical residue in their clothing

Victoria’s Secret, named in Greenpeace’s Study for containing chemical residue in their clothing, is parodied in an ad.

Nadia: Well, and I can’t believe the chemicals that are released to make our clothes! I recently read in Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed that making synthetic fibers such as rayon, viscose, acetate, cupro, and even bamboo requires treating substances like wood pulp and scrap cotton with toxic chemicals. And then I learned from this recent study released by Greenpeace, which tested 20 brands such as Calvin Klein, Levi’s Victoria’s Secret and Zara, that several of the hazardous chemicals found in the garments contained toxic phthalates and even cancer-causing amines from the use of certain dyes!

So what is different about organic cotton?

Marci: In order to have organic food crops, you have to nurture and build the soil, versus conventional agriculture where you are depleting and destroying the soil via poisonous sprays and monocropping, which is when you grow a single crop year after year on the same land. These healthier soils make better use of water inputs and are more resilient in drought conditions. Also, when you eliminate synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the water pollution impact from organic cotton is 98% less than non-organic cotton production, and it produces 94% less greenhouse gas emissions.

Nadia: So can you point us to other sustainable fabrics to look for?

Marci: Tencel from Lenzing, which I am rebranding as ‘ECOlyptus,’ is the cellulose that’s extracted from the eucalyptus plant, grown without water on non-arable land, broken down by a non-toxic, recycled detergent, and manufactured in an efficient closed-loop system that takes minimal energy. It feels like silk and is three times stronger than cotton. Recycled Poly is a great alternative to conventional polyester, which is made with fossil fuels, using an enormous amount of energy.

Nadia: What is recycled poly made with?

Marci: Recycled Poly takes recycled plastic bottles out of landfills and turns them into fiber. There’s a recycled poly yarn fabric called Repreve made by a company in North Carolina called Unifi. In 2012, this company kept 900 million plastic bottles out of landfills in one year! It’s really amazing.

Nadia: Do you have any online suggestions for good eco-fashion information and retailers?

Marci: Compassion Couture, Coco Eco MagazineEco Fashion World, EcouterreECOfabulous, Ethica, Ethical In Style, Fashioning Change, Fashion-Conscience, Honest by, Indigenous, Inhabitat, Magnifeco, Modavanti and People Tree are just a few of the resources out there!

For future updates on Under the Canopy, FASE & Portico, as well as other Eco Fashion ventures, check out Marci’s website at marcizaroff.com.

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview, where Marci will provide more information on the human impact behind the conventional textile manufacturing process!

How cotton production has eradicated the Aral Sea and poisoned its workers:

How Patagonia uses recycled soda bottles and fibers such as hemp to make their clothes:

My Related Posts:

Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

 

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Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

This past summer, I decided it would be a good idea to clean out my apartment while I was moving to another place. It felt really good to ‘detox,’ so to speak, and I relished throwing out old advent calendars in the back of my storage closet, jewelry that was either falling apart or just kind of tacky (do you really need a huge gold peacock ring Nadia, do you?), and clothing that I wasn’t really feeling anymore. As I threw out everything with fervor, something hit me (I think when I picked up a pair of feather earrings that I bought before I began to think seriously about cultural appropriation). I realized that everything I was tossing out was mass-produced. And that when I came across a necklace given to me by my mother, or the Zuni ring that was made by an actual Zuni woman (instead of a ‘Native-inspired’ design made by factory workers abroad), or the Tagua nut necklace that I bought from an artisan in Puerto Rico whose face I still remember, I just couldn’t let it go. Not only did I consider these items art in the way that they had been lovingly hand-crafted, but I had a personal connection with the people who had made them or given them to me. It was easier for me to toss out the shirt I got from Urban Outfitters or the earrings I bought years ago at Forever 21, because I had no knowledge of who made them. They meant little to me.  I didn’t value the work put into these items as much because I knew nothing about it, or the people behind it.

When I wrote my first post on why I blog about fashion, I revealed my complex feelings about the industry, and I have started to document its many contradictions which I find to be both fascinating and so unbelievably challenging. Despite my appreciation for fashion as a mode of expression, I have always been disillusioned with the labor exploitation behind the glamorous façade of the industry. Even though I had been involved in anti-sweatshop campaigns before, and had enjoyed vintage and artisan made products, I still found myself buying into the status quo of retail that encourages mainstream consumption of ‘fast fashion‘ (or buying more clothes at a discount) on the one end, and the idealization of unattainable high couture on the other. Why was I bragging about the great bargain I had scored at the designer discount site, knowing that by doing so, I was also discounting the labor and people behind it? Or drooling over the latest purse Blair Waldorf carried on Gossip Girl, despite being aware that high couture is often a means by which the show reinforces class divisions? Why, girlfriends, wasn’t I connecting the dots?

The unglamorous side to fashion: A child jumps on the leather luxury waste products as she plays in a tannery in Dhaka

The unglamorous side to fashion: A child jumps on leather luxury waste products as she plays in a tannery in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Article here)

The revelation I had this past June standing in my room staring at all of that stuff (and given the total trauma of moving that mountain of possessions, I did wonder did I possess them, or did they posses me?!) was what I would mark as a significant moment in how this movement of sustainability started to truly penetrate my consciousness. Sustainable fashion implies that the product has been made with thought and consideration of its environmental and social impact, and in the following months, as I read about the textile fire in Pakistan that killed more than three hundred people, or the ‘apparel trend‘ report that revealed how companies like Wal-Mart and Forever 21 are ignoring claims of child and forced labor from their workers, or how exporting this cheap labor means a loss of industries and jobs in the U.S, I felt a need to share this information with others. When I read Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed, I was shocked to learn that garment workers overseas are earning just one percent of the retail price of the clothing they produce, and that the wages of garment workers could be easily doubled or tripled with little or no increase for American consumers. I wanted to understand if Nike could afford to double its pay to its thousands of shoe factory employees without raising any of their consumer prices, why weren’t they doing it?

Greenpeace Detox Campaign Image

Greenpeace Detox Campaign Image

Although I had always been aware of the exploitative labor behind the clothes we wear, I had never really considered the harmful environmental impact of the conventional textile industry’s manufacturing process. And then, once I learned about the cancer-causing chemicals that are found in the very fabrics we wear, I knew I needed to connect the dots not just between culture and labor, but between environmental sustainability and cultural economies. Jean Cocteau once noted that “style is a simple way of saying complicated things,” and indeed in today’s world, the clothes we wear should not be dismissed as merely frivolous things, but as signifiers of the truly deep social, environmental, and economic structures of unconscious consumerism.

For the last few weeks, I have been interviewing major industry players, from garment workers to activists to designers, who are making sustainability their focus. I will be incorporating these interviews in a series that I hope will expose the contradictions and lack of transparency in the industry, as well as the ways in which we can start to connect the dots between all of these different concerns and issues within this complex industry. This series will feature:

  • An interview with Marci Zaroff, who coined the term ‘Eco Fashion’ and has been instrumental in drafting Fair Trade and Organic textile standards for the industry in the U.S. In this interview, Marci will provide some basic information on the environmental impact of the textile industry, fair labor practices and why an Indian cotton farmer is committing suicide every half hour. I will also be asking Marci to help us respond to questions and critiques about sustainability, and to help us pinpoint which companies are truly committed to ethical labor and environmental practices, and which ones are just using social responsibility as a way to attract more people to their product.
  • I will then be interviewing Callie Brauel of A Ban Against Neglect (ABAN), a non-profit that empowers street girls in Ghana while helping to clean up the environment, by upcycling waste into adorable accessories and jewelry!
  • If that wasn’t enough inspiration for you, then stay tuned for an article on the non-profit MamAfrica, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The co-founders, Aline Malekera and Ashley Nemiro, created the organization to provide holistic services for refugee women in the town of Bukavu, and are incorporating the art of sewing in their mission to empower women both economically and socially. This post will also reveal how our technology consumption is tied to the conflict minerals crisis in the DRC, and will offer resources on how to become a more empowered consumer outside of the fashion industry.
  • Next, we will turn to issues of culture (because culture needs to be discussed!), and how television shows like Gossip Girl, magazines like Vogue, and brand advertisements influence not just how we consume, but how we see ourselves and shape our identities. Is new media and the rising influence of fashion bloggers challenging the false messaging of advertising? Or am I just a complete fraud? 😉
  • Then…get ready, because we’re going to be tackling the issue of labor, from sweatshops to social movements like Fair Trade and Ethical Fashion that are providing a counterpoint to exploitative labor. This section will highlight the textile company Alta Gracia, which produces university apparel and pays its workers a living wage (while maintaining very affordable prices) and is consistently ranked as having the best monitoring practices in the industry. I will be interviewing three people who have been active with Alta Gracia: Amy Kessel, a student and trade justice organizer from Temple University; Jim Wilkerson, the director of Trademark Licensing & Stores Operations at Duke University; and Maritza Vargas, who works as a garment worker in the Alta Gracia factory. She will be telling all – about her former struggles as a union organizer working in a sweatshop factory, and the truth behind the ‘Fair Labor Association’s’ monitoring practices (spoiler alert: the truth isn’t always pretty!).
  • Next we will discuss the connection between fashion and art, and question whether the artisan/sustainable movement brings the ‘art’ back to a textile landscape increasingly known for its homogenous and cheaply produced products. Also, do artisan-made products empower cultures that are often treated like trends in fast fashion? Two bloggers who created online boutiques as a way to counter cultural appropriation and stereotypes will weigh in on these questions. The first is Jessica Metcalfe, whose boutique Beyond Buckskin exclusively features Native-American designers, and the second is Enyinne Owunwanne, of the online site Heritage 1960 that has become a retail destination for an alternative view of African fashion, lifestyle, and design.
  • Then the series will turn to the different fashion/jewelry designers who make it a point to incorporate sustainable practices in their lines while empowering marginalized communities both in the U.S. and abroad. Interviews will include couture designer Kahindo Mateene from the African-inspired line Modahnik, former Harper’s Bazaar editor Ariela Suster from the El Salvadorian accessories collection Sequence, Native designer Kristen Dorsey from the Native jewelry line Kristen Dorsey Designs, and Eco-fashion designer Lusmila McColl from the line McColl & Clan.
  • Finally, how do we turn awareness into action? What is the difference between awareness that is merely used as a brand gimmick or a shallow substitute for engagement, versus one that can be a tool for positive change? Sophia Hyder, who has worked in development for the last ten years, will be weighing in on these questions. Her recently launched line Evolvemint sells Eco-friendly scarves made by women in Bangladesh, and she has also developed a ‘pink’ line that donates money to a breast cancer foundation that uses its funds not for awareness, but for financial assistance to underinsured women. I will also be talking with Rick Awdas, who created the site Ethical in Style so that people could learn more about sustainable brands and have access to an enormous database of ethical fashion options.
  • I will also be answering reader questions (umm…so excited!) about how to go about different sustainable practices, like DIY (do it yourself) clothing, thrift shopping, and/or just buying less. Want resources on where to get information on ethical fashion and sustainability in general? Don’t worry peeps, girlfriend will be hooking you up!
  • Oh, and I just might be throwing in giveaways of socially conscious items, cause it’s all about the extras that gets thrown in your gift bag, right? 😉

Basically, the reason why I began this blog in the first place was to start conversations, and my purpose for this series is not to preach perfection, but to encourage conscious choices through increased awareness of issues related to sustainability, specifically in regards to the garment industry. I truly believe that when we don’t know where our clothes are made, than we lose that sense of community and human connection that is so important. I hope to highlight the importance of handmade products that help to personalize the process of production and revive the relationship between those who make the clothes and those who purchase them. My intention is not to dismiss fashion (obvi), but to envision improvement by examining where culture and labor meet, and the effect that this has mostly on women. My hope is that by using fashion as my ‘example,’ I also can help create awareness on other related issues, like the environment, suspect practices in certifications and labeling, and labor.

So, let’s do this girlfriends!

Update: This series, and my blog in general, has been approved as part of my dissertation research on transparency in the fashion industry. So needless to say, it is going to be expanded – stay tuned! 🙂

Additional Resources:

My Related Posts:

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Post-Halloween musings: Fashion, Appropriation, and Cultural Identity

Note: An abridged version of this piece is now on the Huffington Post.

Hey everyone! So I’m sorry I’ve been a bit strugglin’ with my posts … I just got back from a conference on Fair Trade, which was pretty much the chillest thing ever (umm …. inspiring panels led by Colombian banana farmers + dark chocolate covered bananas + Tagua nut bracelets made by Ecuadorian Fair Trade farmers = Can we talk girlfriends? Can we?!) I absolutely can’t wait to blog about it in a few weeks, so stay tuned for an upcoming series on sustainability and Fair Trade! (I know it will be hard to sleep at night until then, but bear with me GFs, it will be worth it ;))

So here’s the thing. I actually wasn’t planning on writing about the issue of cultural appropriation during Halloween, mainly because there are so many bloggers doing amazing work on the subject. But I have to admit that I found it difficult to ignore these links of racist Halloween costumes, or these pictures of people dressed up as ‘sexy Natives.’ And one of the reasons why I struggle so much with this level of cultural flippancy is because I can understand to some extent, why it is difficult for some people to see ‘fashion statements’ as something that can hurt. But as I’ve written before on this blog, my relationship with fashion hasn’t exactly been a harmonious one. Being engaged and critical can often suck the fun out of an industry that is supposed to be fun and based in fantasy. I remember wearing my ‘feather earrings’ that I bought at a flea market years ago and people commenting on how I looked ‘Indian.’ I remember taking that as a compliment and thinking that was pretty cool, and I’m pretty sure I wore those bright red ‘not-so-Indian’ earrings all week. Because I am ethnically ambiguous, I can float somewhat easily in that ‘Latina/mixed/other’ spectrum, and while I believe this has afforded me empathy for different groups of people, I would argue that it is also easier for me to use fashion in a way that allows me to ‘try on’ different cultural identities.’ I abused that privilege years ago with those culturally insensitive earrings, and I sucked for that. I’m sorry.

The zigzags on this ‘Navajo’ hipster panty from Urban Outfitters actually represent lightning, and are worn by the Navajos as a symbol of protection, while the star designs are taken from the ‘four sacred mountains on each corner of the sacred Navajo homeland.’ – Navajo educator Ruth Roessel

So what is cultural appropriation? In its most simplistic definition, it is the seizing of another culture without their consent. It’s taking an otherwise complex culture and turning it into a caricature. It’s the ‘Navajo’ shirts that Urban Outfitters sells that essentializes the many different American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people in the United States into one broad ‘Native’ tribe defined as Navajo. It’s the celebration of Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, and the erasure of the imperialist raping and enslaving from our history. It’s the Victoria’s Secret ‘Geisha’ lingerie line that featured white models in Orientalist eye makeup and outfits, which in the words of blogger Nina Jacinto, only perpetuates the stereotype of Asian women as objects of sexual fantasy, trading in ‘real humanness for access to culture.’ It’s the Vogue dance-style that was attributed to Madonna when it really originated with gay urban men of color. It’s Gwen Stefani wearing cultural and spiritual objects such as bindis as fashion, and using Asian-American dancers as props, always claiming that she is celebrating their culture.

Turning slavery into a fashion statement, and on white models, nonetheless. (Photo courtesy of Vogue Italia)

It’s also the Dolce & Gabbana ‘black busts’ earrings that commodified black bodies and were defended on the grounds that they ‘represented’ Sicilian Blackmoore pottery, ignoring the legacy of race-based slavery which influenced this tradition. And while we’re on the subject of earrings, who can forget when Vogue Italia referenced large hoop earrings as ‘slave earrings’ in their fall 2011 issue, citing the ‘women of color’ who were ‘brought’ to the United States as their fashion inspiration? Brought, not sold. Brought, not enslaved. Cultural appropriation, done.

Victoria’s Secret ‘Sexy Geisha outfit’ was part of their Go East selection and promised an ‘exotic adventure.’ The line has since been removed due to protest (photo courtesy of fashionbombdaily.com)

Because cultural appropriation is so often found in fashion, it is not taken that seriously. Fashion is fun and fantasy, wrapped up in a bright pick Victoria’s Secret bag that can then be discarded when it no longer fits. Perhaps that’s why on Halloween, a one-night event where the whole purpose is to take on another identity, we witness so much unapologetic appropriation. After all, what you wear doesn’t define you, right? I mean, just because someone is wearing a headdress doesn’t actually mean they have internalized the racism that is responsible for the eradication of tribes and their cultural practices?

For me, the issue isn’t so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly ‘harmless’ statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as ‘Indians’ for  Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.

Furthermore, the privileging in our culture of Western fashion that emphasizes ‘newness’ as a sign of progress and change tends to view American Indian tribes as examples of more traditional cultures who use clothing for utilitarian purposes. As Dakota artist and activist Bobby Wilson put it, we’re fixated on this idea that “native people are frozen in time.” Despite the efforts of minority students from the University of Ohio last year, many Americans still view American Indians, and other minority groups, as a costume, not a culture. And because fashion is seen as so frivolous and something that goes out of trend so quickly, many argue that the industry’s fascination with exoticizing certain cultures shouldn’t be taken seriously. In fact, many counter-arguments are made to cultural appropriation that on the contrary, minority groups should feel privileged by this representation of their culture by the mainstream.

On dressing up ‘cultural’ for Halloween…

So here’s the problem. The argument that you can ‘try on’ a cultural identity for a day and then discard it speaks to the ability of being able to return to your special place of privilege. You can take off your headdress and sleep at night, knowing that you don’t have to wake up the next morning to confront a history of colonialism and genocide that has left your community living in an impoverished reservation and having to deal with segregation, racism, and gross cultural misrepresentation in the form of  films, sports mascots, and holidays. As the ‘We’re a Culture, not a Costume’ Campaign put it, “You wear the costume for one night, we wear the stigma for life.”

Americans take pride in our ‘American-ness,’ our cultural traditions that bring us together and include Independence day, apple pie, and the Star Spangled banner. But let’s face it. There have always been some people who are considered more American than others. Just think about the term ‘All-American’ and what it implies: white, blond, attractive, athletic. Are people of color then ‘partial-American?’ Are they not American enough? Does that leave them in the position of having to defend the degree of their American-ness?

And this is why it is so dangerous to ‘dress-up’ as another culture, because a white person who dresses up as a ‘Mexican’ in Arizona doesn’t have to worry that his citizenship will be questioned. He can go to a ‘ghetto’ party and wear his hoodie up in an effort to look more ‘hood’ without fearing that he will get killed like Trayvon Martin. A white person who goes to a bar dressed in blackface doesn’t have to worry about being turned away like a recent Harvard student for no reason other than the color of his skin. He doesn’t have to face the reality that when there is a hurricane, he will be wrongly labeled as a looter and then identified as a ‘refugee,’ a misplaced citizen.

And yes, I realize that there are non-white people who have been guilty of dressing up in ‘Indian’ fashions, as the pictures from Fashion’s Night Out ‘Pow-Wow’ party demonstrates. The appropriation of American Indian culture is widespread and certainly not limited to white people, especially given the fashion industry’s rampant appropriation of Native cultural objects that are spit out for ‘hipster’ consumption. However, I think we need to ask why it is that ‘cultural’ costumes are far more common to wear on Halloween and at theme parties than dressing up as say, a young white male. While people can conceive an image of a ‘ghetto’ costume, a geisha, an Arab terrorist or a ‘Cherokee princess,’ do we actually have a singular vision of what a white male looks like?

Fashion is not frivolous. Clothes, and the way in which we wear them to express our identity and who we are, can have profound meaning. If you really want to honor a culture, why not do it in a more thoughtful manner that brings to light all of its complexities? By doing it through fashion, you run the risk of treating an entire group of people as a trend, something that is in vogue one minute and out the next, easy to dispose of and forget.

From Fashion Night’s Out, ‘Pow-Wow’ party (photo courtesy of Native Appropriations)

Check out this inspiring campaign by Native Appropriations’ Adrienne K, who received not just an official apology from Paul Frank Industries for their “Pow-Wow” party, but a promise that they would remove all Native inspired designs as well as collaborate with a Native artist for future designs!

Further Reading:

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